Geraldine Hughes’ memoir of growing up in the war zones of Belfast, Northern Ireland, delivers what most solo shows rarely muster: drama. Introducing herself as a “wee girl” from a poor but loving family living in a tight-knit Catholic neighborhood, animated thesp assumes the characters (and vivid local accents) of mum, dad, friends, neighbors and her younger self, all of whose lives changed when “the troubles” began. Child’s p.o.v. lends weight and poignancy to the incidents of daily life — going to church, grocery shopping — that turn into life-endangering adventures once bombs and bullets start bouncing off the walls.
At 35, Hughes can legitimately chart the progress of Ireland’s bitter civil war by consulting the chapters of her life. On the day she was born, the car rushing her mother to the hospital had to crash through a street barricade erected by British Army troops recently deployed to Northern Ireland. On her first day of school, she had to walk the “peace line,” a 30-foot brick wall that had gone up to separate the warring factions of adjacent Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. Truth to tell, every day growing up poor and Catholic on the streets of West Belfast in the 1970s and ’80s was fraught with peril.
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In her brisk, unsentimental and sadly funny account of her younger days, Hughes serves as narrator and dramatis personae — a stageworthy approach that distinguishes the legit thesp from the storyteller. Rejecting the aid and comfort of costumes or makeup, she relies on sturdy vocal skills and sharp visual impressions — the crooked-arm posture of the habitual smoker, the hand-to-the-heart gesture of the perpetually anxious mother, the ramrod stance of the martinet nun — to animate the 20-odd characters who figure in the narrative. Some are more keenly drawn than others (the grownups, surprisingly, are far more vivid than the bloblike children), but their earthy language and pungent accents give each a sharp bite.
Tiny and wiry, Hughes conveys the tough persona of a street kid dancing for pennies with a shiv tucked in her back pocket. But the emotions flickering in her big, round eyes of penetrating “Belfast blue” are wide ranging and complex.
There is affection and fierce protectiveness in her family portraits. There’s pride, too, in her depiction of the ways people manage to survive in a war zone by just carrying on. “Desperate times, eh, Sheila?” is how a shopkeeper greets her mother, who has had to negotiate tanks in the street and soldiers with guns to get to the store. “Gorgeous day, though, Sheila. The fucking sun is shining. The sun is shining.”
There’s pain, too, in these recollections. The childhood pain of growing up traumatized that still shines in Hughes’s Belfast-blue eyes is what eventually turned her life into a Cinderella story. As one of a group of Belfast children chosen to appear in the NBC TV movie “Children in the Crossfire,” 13-year-old Geraldine was brought to Hollywood, where she made the kind of impression that allowed her to return as a student and future actor. (Hollywood, in fact, has never quite let her go, as is made clear by Anjelica Huston’s production role in her current project.)
Although the last half of the show recounts this life-changing experience with a great deal of cross-cultural wit, it lacks the drama and searing shock value of the earlier scenes. (Segments from the film projected on the back wall of Jonathan Christman’s bricked-up and razor-wired set can’t compare to the horrifying stills of real-life Belfast — even allowing for the fact that all projections are washed out by the lighting spill-off.)
Compared to watching a soldier die in your front hall and seeing the decapitated head of the little boy upstairs, going to Hollywood doesn’t seem like much of an adventure.